In his 2009 book In Search of Small Gods, Jim Harrison wrote that, “death steals everything except our stories.” Those words ring true today as fans mourn the loss of the celebrated novelist, poet, essayist, and outdoorsman, who passed away in his Arizona home Saturday at the age of 78.
Harrison’s book publisher, Grove Atlantic, confirmed his untimely passing in a statement Sunday in which CEO Morgan Entrekin said Harrison’s “voice came from the American heartland, and his deep and abiding love of the American landscape runs through his extraordinary body of work.”
Best known for his 1979 novella Legends of the Fall (which became the 1994 film starring Brad Pitt), Harrison was a prodigious writer with 21 volumes of fiction to his name. He also penned six films during a stint in Hollywood during the 1990s, including Revenge and Wolf.
Harrison considered himself first and foremost a poet. His longtime publisher Copper Canyon Press released what was to become his final book of poetry, Dead Man’s Float, this January. It was his 18th work in the genre amid a career in poetry that spanned more than 50 years.
Harrison was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship. He enjoyed popular and critical success for his writing in the United States, but found an equally avid audience in Europe. His works often explored man’s relationship with the natural world, and many were set in the sparsely populated regions of Middle America and the Frontier West. The New York Times said of Harrison in an obituary this weekend that he “captured the resonant, almost mythic soul of 20th-century rural America.”
Harrison was often compared to Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, and characterized as a writer of “hyper-masculine” texts, though this was a label he personally deplored. “All I have to say about that macho thing goes back to the idea that my characters aren’t from the urban dream-coasts,” he told the Paris Review in 1986. “A man is not a foreman on a dam project because he wants to be macho.”
Born in Michigan in a natural landscape that would shape his later writings, the avid outdoorsman spent his adult years bouncing between homes in Patagonia, Arizona, and Livingston, Montana. He by all accounts distained the literary establishment of New York and spent much of his time enjoying the simpler pleasures of nature, hunting, fishing, and cooking up the trophies of his pursuits.
As impactful as Harrison’s love of nature was his adoration of food and its origins. The septuagenarian turned his attention to food in his later years, penning several essays for Men's Journal and other magazines that were cobbled together in his 1992 and 2001 books The Raw and the Cooked and The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand.
Harrison’s wife of more than 50 years, Linda King, died last October. He leaves behind two daughters, Jamie Potenberg and Anna Hjortsberg, and three grandchildren.